Recently, a friend of mine sent me a link to Oxford University’s History Aptitude Tests (HAT). These tests are designed for 18 year olds applying for admission to Oxford. I really liked the look of them – the one I saw was interesting, challenging, covered a broad range of historical eras and I can imagine that it would be quite an interesting test to discuss in class too. However, I did also think that some of the advice that came with the tests wasn’t as helpful as it could have been. For example, here:
”The HAT is a test of skills, not substantive historical knowledge. It is designed so that candidates should find it equally challenging, regardless of what period(s) they have studied or what school examinations they are taking.”
I am not sure this is the case. The HAT does require substantive historical knowledge, and a candidate with knowledge of the eras on the test paper would not find it as challenging as a candidate with no such knowledge. Let’s have a look at some of the questions from this paper.
The first question features an extract from a book about the Comanche empire. The test advises that ‘you do not need to know anything about the subject to answer the questions below.’ I suppose that is true in the loosest sense, in that I do not need to know anything about physics in order to take an A-level in it. But of course, that isn’t the sense in which most of the examinees will be interested in. I think you do need to know something about North American colonisation to do well at the questions below. There are two questions. One of them is ‘In your own words, write a single sentence identifying the main argument of the first paragraph’, and the second is ‘What does the author argue in this passage about recent attempts made by historians to integrate Native Americans into the history of colonialism in North America?’
At first glance, it may seem as if these really aren’t testing prior knowledge, but are instead testing an abstract skill of ‘summarising’, or ‘argument recognition’. However, in actual fact, even these questions are testing substantive historical knowledge. The passage and question from HAT are actually uncannily similar to one of the classic experiments used to show why knowledge is so important for cognition. In 1978, E.D. Hirsch asked groups of students to read two passages of equal difficulty in terms of vocabulary and syntax. One was about friendship, and one was about Grant and Lee and the end of the Civil War. University students understood both passages equally well. Poorer students at the community college did just as well on the passage about friendship, but struggled on the one about the Civil War. Hirsch theorised that their weakness on this second passage was down to their lack of knowledge about the Civil War, not any lack in some innate ‘passage comprehension’ ability. Similar research has been carried out again and again, to the extent that researchers in this field say that reading is not a ‘formal skill’: it is dependent on background knowledge. Recently, Kate Hammond’s articles in Teaching History about the power of ‘substantive historical knowledge’ also speak to the importance of background knowledge for historical understanding. She shows how pupils who have historical knowledge that goes beyond the exam rubric and even the era being studied are often able to deploy such knowledge in a way that leads to better analysis. For example, if a pupil has knowledge of how minority parties operate within a democracy, this can lead to better analysis of the challenges that faced the Nazi party in the 1920s.
In the case of the HAT extract about the Comanche empire, students with knowledge of western colonialism and the nature of indigenous societies will understand the passage better, read it quicker, and summarise it more acutely. Pupils without that knowledge will not be able to employ their generic ‘summarising’ or ‘historical analysis’ mental muscles, because such muscles don’t exist. Instead, they will be puzzling over what a ‘Euro-American’ is or what the ‘colonization of the Americas’ entailed.
The next question is: Write an essay of 1.5 to 3 sides assessing and explaining who were the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in any historical event, process or movement. You may answer with reference to any society, period or place with which you are familiar.
Obviously, you will need ‘substantive historical knowledge’ to answer this question. The more knowledge of different eras you have, the more likely you are to find one that fits the bill for the question, and the more detailed knowledge you have of each individual era, the more likely you are to have something worthwhile to say about it.
The final question is a source from 16th century Germany. It says, “You do not need to know anything about Germany in the sixteenth century to answer the question below, nor should you draw on any information from outside the source.”
As regards the first piece of advice, again, it’s true that you may not need to know anything to answer the question, but it will certainly help you if you do. But that’s better than the second piece of advice, which is actually cognitively impossible. The modern research on reading and cognition shows us that when we read, we make sense of the content by…drawing on information from outside the source. No written text contains all the information we need to make sense of it. All texts depend to some extent on the reader supplying certain bits of information themselves.
When we look at the source itself, we can find plenty of examples of how knowledge from outside the text is impossible to avoid using, and is extremely helpful. First of all, there’s vocabulary: knowing the historical meanings of alms, peasants, lodgings and bathhouse would definitely be helpful. Second, there are references to concepts that have a particular meaning in medieval Europe: the phrase ‘put out of the city’, for example, makes a lot more sense if you understand something about medieval European cities, their rights and freedoms, and their geographical limits and defences. Similarly, there is a reference to epilepsy, which is now understood as a physical illness, but in 16th century Europe was seen as a sign of madness. All of this ‘information from outside the source’ would be hugely valuable in answering the question, and those students who have this information will do better than those who don’t.
I can see how this advice is intended to be well-meaning. I can see that it might be trying to ensure that candidates are not intimidated if they haven’t heard of a particular period of history, and perhaps also to demonstrate that this admissions test is fair to all pupils regardless of educational background – that even if you are a state school pupil who has only studied the Nazis and Tudors, you won’t be at a disadvantage to pupils from independent schools who have studied more historical topics. The test is attempting to uncover some kind of innate ‘historical aptitude’ which exists regardless of the amount of history books you’ve read or historical ideas you have been exposed to. The only problem, of course, is that such innate historical aptitude doesn’t exist. Like many concepts we mistakenly describe as ‘skill’, the ability to analyse historical problems and sources is not something innate and discrete which resides mysteriously within us. It is learnt, and depends to a large degree on the amount of knowledge we have in long-term memory. Actually, in the case of history, this should be even easier to appreciate than in other fields of life. For example, there is no such thing as innate chess skill, but it does at least feel plausible that there might be a part of the brain devoted to the logic necessary for chess. There is no such thing as innate historical skill either, and it feels less plausible that there is a part of the brain devoted to analysing the causes of the Second World War. The concept of ‘historical aptitude’ reminds me of GK Chesterton’s famous quotation:
Education, they say, is the Latin for leading out or drawing out the dormant faculties of each person. Somewhere far down in the dim boyish soul is a primordial yearning to learn Greek accents or to wear clean collars; and the schoolmaster only gently and tenderly liberates this imprisoned purpose. Sealed up in the newborn babe are the intrinsic secrets of how to eat asparagus and what was the date of Bannockburn. The educator only draws out the child’s own unapparent love of long division; only leads out the child’s slightly veiled preference for milk pudding to tarts.
I spoke to a couple of friends who teach at independent schools and frequently prepare students for this assessment. They disagreed with the ideas that a) you couldn’t prepare students for it and b) it didn’t depend on knowledge. They said that you could prepare students for it by getting them to read lots about lots of different historical eras, and that the students who knew more history generally did better on it. Interestingly, however, they also said that it was because of these reasons that, like me, they quite liked the test. It wasn’t possible to game it in any way, and preparing students for this test generally involved activities which made them better historians, not just better test takers. And they felt the results generally did distinguish between candidates who were and were not good at history. I suspect in many cases, therefore, the advice on this paper is not the end of the world, as plenty of people are probably ignoring it. Still, both the friends I spoke to were at independent schools who put a lot of time and effort into cracking the Oxbridge admissions code. What about teachers at schools who don’t have a tradition of Oxbridge entry, or can’t devote as much time to reading the runes of these tests? Aren’t they more likely to take this advice at face value – and aren’t their pupils therefore more likely to do badly on such a test? Improving the advice on how to prepare for this test could help all students become better historians, but it could particularly help students from disadvantaged backgrounds.